September 14, 2023
By Jamaima Afridi
It is now eight days since the closure of the Torkham border crossing, and Afghan travelers stranded in Pakistan face no other options than renting accommodation or relying on the charity of locals.
12-year-old Sadia, who came to Peshawar for medical treatment, has been residing in a mosque for the past week or so.
“I am sick. I have a fever and cough, and my stomach hurts as well,” she says.
“We have been sleeping on the floor. We do not have any pillows and mats, and now my back, stomach and head have started to hurt really badly.”
Zakiullah, a resident of Afghanistan’s Laghman province, came with a friend who is a heart patient. Both men left with enough funds for a quick round trip, but with the unexpected border closure, they and their families are wracked with worry and in dire financial straits.
“We have passports and visas, but we cannot return home. I am an only son, the women and children of my family are waiting for me,” he laments, adding that with all their money gone, the only accommodation they could find was at an already-packed mosque. “We have family who could have helped us if we were in our own country. But with the gate locked, they cannot even send us any money to help us out.”
He expresses concern for his friend’s heart issue and for their families who rely on them for their bread and butter.
“It will cost us Rs. 20,000 to Rs. 30,000 rupees per head to try to go back to Afghanistan through Quetta, and we cannot afford that. Not to mention it will be a risky journey for a heart patient. If the [Torkham] gate was open, we would get back home in just Rs. 50,” he explains. “We went to the border yesterday and saw our house from there.”
The border closure has not only affected ordinary travelers but also severely hampered trade as well. Daily wage earners like Fazal Muhammad, a resident of Girdi village in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province who makes a living as a delivery truck driver along the Pakistan-Afghanistan route, says Afghan transporters not only must look out for their own survival but also ensure that trade goods remain untouched.
“In times when the route is blocked, we are often targeted by thieves, especially when we sleep at night,” he tells Voicepk.net. “We are four to five friends here, and every time one of us goes out to fetch essential items from the nearby market. Things that normally cost Rs. 500 are going for double or triple that here in the mountains.”
He also adds that some of them are falling sick, but there is no one around to check on them or provide immediate aid.
“We do not know if our families are facing an emergency… we have already spent Rs. 10,000 here, and that money could have easily gone toward the wellbeing of my children. I could have been on another delivery by now.”
With any loss or damage to trade goods, truckers like Muhammad fear that they may face sizeable financial setbacks by the time they are able to make deliveries. Local sources estimate that Pakistan and Afghanistan share a loss of nearly $10 million in due suspension of trade and traffic with the Torkham border crossing closure.
According to the Pakistan-Afghanistan Joint Chamber of Commerce, trade between the two nations was valued at $2.5 billion in 2010 while in 2022-2023, it was valued at $1.8 billion.
Aftan Shinwari, head of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement’s (PTM) Khyber District wing explains that the closure was the result of an exchange of fire at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, in which travellers on either side were the ultimate casualty.
“We are giving them shelter in a mosque… arranging for food, while several of our friends are talking with the consulate [for their repatriation],”
he says. “We also staged a rally calling for peace on both sides. There are Pashtuns, Muslims… even Shinwari tribespeople on either side… it is crucial for both governments to establish peace and prevent further suffering.”
Shinwari also provides that due to recurring conflict along the border regions, many residents on either side were forced to migrate.
“Many from Landi Kotal living near the border are seeking refuge with their relatives to cope with these circumstances, and the same is happening on the Afghan side. Unfortunately, it is the poor who bear the brunt of these conflicts,” he further opines that the locals and stranded Afghans are not too hopeful of any positive change as such incidents tend to happen all the time. “Given Afghanistan’s limited capacity for production, Pakistan should rather promote trade by lowering taxes and encouraging Afghan exports.”
Local sources claim that both countries held talks on September 10 to reopen the crossing on Sunday, however, this has yet to culminate into any meaningful development as of the filing of this report.